COLUMN: May You Stay Forever Young
Published: Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 19, 2013 00:09
“May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung / May you stay forever young.”
The lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” have been lionized, continually invoked by a new generation of artists, infatuated with the notion, but far removed from the context. The original was recorded in the November of 1973—less than a year after U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam.
Thirty years can turn blood to wine. At many a graduation party and sentimental gathering—even in a 2009 Super Bowl commercial, which used Dylan’s lyrics as underlay for a verse by rapper will.i.am—the phrase “forever young” has become the superficial call to youthful apathy.
And yet, the spirit of the lyric is somber, a recanting of the call America made to her troops in the late ’60s and early ’70s. For nearly 60,000 soldiers, “forever young” was not the platitude we recognize it as today—it was a cold, lifeless reality. Climbing the rungs to heaven was not an appeal to grandiosity, but rather a description of a painful, trying fate. Our culture is enamored by this prospect of staying “young forever,” but is hardly alive to the implications of it.
Pop music is something docile, benign, a blanket to comfort the masses, strung together by the fibers of baseless ideas—or at least such is typically thought.
“Forever Young,” devised as a heartbreaking statement on untimely death, has been adapted to a lively club mantra, in Ke$ha’s 2012 single “Die Young.” If there’s any particularly telling generational commentary to be taken from this song, it’s that there’s no telling generational commentary to be taken from this song—it’s so cheerfully trite and removed from the day-to-day.
Or how about Jay Z’s “Young Forever”? It’s seemingly innocent enough: a competently executed, and attractively produced play with Dylan’s ideas (“So let’s just stay in the moment / Smoke some weed, drink some wine / Reminisce, talk some shit/ Forever young is in your mind”). If anything, recasting this concept of youthfulness to be a proxy for immortality—melting away thoughts of how fickle and vulnerable the state of youthfulness has been historically—gives us a newfound sense of protection in our decision making. In itself, it hardly seems harmful.
And yet, it’s oftentimes unsettling, how frequently we’re eased into this rather nonsensical mode of the thinking when we interact with pop music. There’s something dreadfully appealing about making little of something big, like our understanding of mortality.
“Wake Me Up,” EDM producer Avicii’s recent collaboration with American soul singer Aloe Blacc, really plays with the whole absurd mode of thought invoked by pop music. “Wish that I could stay forever this young / Not afraid to close my eyes / Life’s a game made for everyone / And love is the prize,” sings Blacc—who in his own musical work, provides commentary quite contrary to popular thought. And now he’s singing on this banger club anthem, suggesting he wants to close his eyes, and sleep the responsibility of his life away.
Then, comes the chorus, seemingly a counterpoint to his desire to stay forever this young: “So wake me up when it’s all over / When I’m wiser and I’m older.”
It’s all presented so matter-of-factly, these ridiculous lyrics implying we’ll get wiser when we sleep, as surely as we’ll get older. It’s all just so wrong—and the thing is, I believe an important minority of artists are extraordinarily alive to this. I’d argue Blacc is one, and many others, perpetually bleeding into the mainstream, are not so sold on their music being rendered docile or benign. I cannot personally verify just how subversive any one song might be, but I think we all can hear quite recent music in the vein of Dylan’s “Forever Young.”
Popular music has historically been in a fickle and vulnerable state, recognizable in its entire genre subsets doomed for extinction. I hardly hope, decades from now, my children will be listening to anything with a sound even slightly consistent with the works of Ke$ha.
As far as artistic mediums go, a pop song is chiefly an expendable device, but the ideas delivered by these devices are hardly insignificant. I like to believe collectively, popular culture is a front—disguised in it some of the most telling thoughts on the aspirations and inhibitions of a generation.
It’s no accident that music flourishes in wartime, and eras of economic uncertainty—at its noblest, popular music is the projection of our uncertainties, and our inexpressible, even nonsensical desires. The musical craft subscribes itself to the dismal science of documenting the human heart. And perhaps as a device, it is wholly unsustainable, but beyond its front, music can bring us somewhere unchanging, eternal.
“May your song always be sung.”